Pebble, Stone, Boulder


Earlier this week I was reading my eldest daughter's electronic journal (Seesaw) which enables you to view photos and updates of the work being undertaken throughout the term. The update related to a story plan Olivia was developing, and her teacher had commented 'pebble, rock, boulder'. 

Pebble, rock, boulder is a technique authors use to build a narrative in a story:

1.    You set up a small problem (pebble);

2.    Then create bigger problems (rocks); and

3.    Drop the boulder, this is usually a massive tension scene in a novel or movie.

It was the first time I had heard it described in this manner, but immediately loved the approach. Building narratives (and narrative is just a fancy name for story telling) is currently one of the current business trends with the roles like Chief Story Teller actually becoming a thing…any way.

I got on to discussing the Pebble, Rock, Boulder technique with one of my clients who said it’s actually the reverse when you are building something, you want to start with the boulder and get the big thing in place. Then you fill in and around it with the smaller rocks and sand. If you try and build on sand you haven’t got the foundations you need.

Or as they say in New Zealand, you need to get the big sheep through the gate first. Then all the others follow.

It got me thinking about change, disruption and transformation. Is it better to start with the pebble? And build up the momentum incrementally? Or do you need the boulder? Perhaps a little esoteric as you scroll through your Linkedin posts on the tram, idly wondering whether or not you are in the free tram zone or not...

The reality is it doesn’t matter if you start with the Pebble or Boulder. What matters is that you have a strategy (remembering, as Professor Lynda Applegate drummed into us at Harvard Business School ‘hope is not a strategy!’) and execute on it. In other words, do what you say you are going to and stop pussy footing around.

In the recent 2Bobs podcast ‘Reviewing the Surveillance Footage’, Blair Enns talked about ‘the universe rewards action, action yields information. Even if it wasn’t the right thing to do, you get the information back and in most cases there is some way to correct that action. There is no information that comes from inaction.’

Being in business means you do take risks. You make decisions that may be right or wrong, and you calibrate along the way. Again back to the Lynda’s words of wisdom ‘a poor strategy with excellent execution will trump an excellent strategy with poor execution every time’. 

Some eighteen months ago First Follower started working with a $2M dollar client, who wanted to be a $5M business by 2020. It was a high volume business and this was definitely a stretch goal. The growth strategy we designed, but more importantly executed on, will see this business achieve $6M in revenue by the end of 2018.  

Two years ahead of their goal.

Ceinwen McNeil is the founder and managing director of First Follower, an international strategy consulting firm which designs and executes growth strategies for professional services. Drawing on over twenty years of business development and client management experience in both the public and private sectors, she founded First Follower to enable businesses to successfully navigate step growth change. Ceinwen’s direct approach, commercial acumen and exemplary stakeholder engagement skills make her a highly sought-after adviser. Visit for more information.

Ceinwen McNeil